Chinese Democracy: ‘scientific, democratic and legal’

A recent lecture by Professor James Fishkin reflects on Chinese experiments in deliberative democracy.
Keith Sutherland
5 July 2010

That august institution the British Academy has recently embarked on a radical enquiry into ‘the challenges which face policymakers in Britain today’ under the aegis of its New Paradigms in Public Policy project. In February the 2010 BA lecture was given by M.H. Hansen, the foremost historian of ancient Greek democracy. In his lecture Professor Hansen concluded that Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers (the creation myth of liberal democracy) has become ‘so riddled with exceptions that it must be scrapped’.

Louis XIV’s infamous claim ‘L’État, c’est moi is just as applicable to modern presidents and prime ministers, so we should revert to the 1642 blueprint for a republican mixed constitution authored by Charles I (sic). In case you think this is just a deranged rant, the Charles I citation was from the distinguished historian J.G.A. Pocock and Hansen’s BA lecture is soon to be published in the well-respected scholarly journal History of Political Thought.

Last week an equally iconoclastic BA lecture was delivered by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, which advocated a democratic experiment of his own that is apparently going down well in the People’s Republic of China.

Professor Fishkin claimed that we’ve known that liberal democracy doesn’t work since 1957, when Anthony Downs published his ‘rational ignorance’ theorem. Put simply, Downs proved that there’s no point in voters taking the considerable trouble to study the issues in sufficient depth to vote intelligently as their individual vote has a negligible effect on the outcome of the election. Or, as Russell Hardin memorably put it: ‘Having the liberty to cast my vote is roughly as valuable as having the liberty to cast a vote on whether the sun will shine tomorrow.’ Fishkin and his colleague Bruce Ackerman are delightfully rude about our tendency to ‘vote for the politicians with the biggest smile or the biggest handout’, and are equally scornful of computer sampling models which enable politicians to ‘learn precisely which combinations of myth and greed might work to generate the support from key voting groups.’

Fishkin’s solution to the problem of rational ignorance is random selection by lot to create temporary deliberative assemblies to debate the issue(s) on hand and vote on the outcome. Like most people working in the field (including Anthony Barnett and the present author) Fishkin thought he had invented this system (known technically as ‘sortition’) only to discover that the Athenians beat him to it 2,400 years ago. But the modern study of sortition is largely in the hands of normative political theorists who are more concerned with Rawlsian speculations on equality and social justice than with designing practical experiments to investigate the institutional framework necessary to enable intelligent and informed decisions from a randomly-selected group of lay people.

The Stanford sortition experiments have taken place over the last quarter century – in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, Northern Ireland and transnationally in a Europe-wide project for the entire European Union – and have demonstrated that, given balanced advocacy and careful moderation, ordinary people will take the time to study and deliberate the issues before making an informed decision (via a secret ballot). Fishkin is opposed to the pressure to consensus that afflicts the Habermasian model of deliberative democracy and also claims that his institutional design overcomes the polarising tendencies of group deliberation recently outlined by Cass Sunstein.

Which brings us back to China – perhaps the most unlikely place on earth for an experiment in radical democracy. Fishkin was contacted in 2004 by the party leadership in Zegou township, Wenling City (about 300 km south of Shanghai) who had a problem prioritising infrastructure projects – they had identified thirty potential projects but only had funding for ten. Although party leaders had their own preferences they commissioned Fishkin to introduce a randomly-selected deliberative assembly (235 members), who deliberated for a day over the various projects and voted on the outcome. Although the winning priorities on the deliberative poll were very different from those of the local leadership, the results were duly implemented (most of Fishkin’s other deliberative polls are purely advisory). Fishkin’s full paper is published in the current issue of the British Journal of Political Science

One of the problems with implementing sortition in a wholesale manner in mature Western democracy is, as Tariq Modood pointed out at the BA meeting, having struggled for two centuries gaining the franchise, why would we now want to abandon it? Voting has the status of a natural right and it’s hard to imagine giving it up, even if it doesn’t work. Which brings me back to Professor Hansen, who pointed out in his lecture that, prior to 1828, nobody believed that voting had anything to do with democracy – elections were aristocratic as they were intended to select ‘the best’ (aristoi); if you want democracy then the only means is sortition (as Bernard Manin has pointed out, this is true in principle, irrespective of the extent of the franchise).

However 1828 witnessed an extraordinary sleight-of-hand when Andrew Jackson took hold of Madison and Jefferson’s Republican Party and rechristened it the Democractic Party. Since then we’ve been labouring under the illusion that preference voting is in some sense ‘democratic’. Even after Schumpeter’s demonstration that voting is just a way of alternating elites, we still hang on to the illusion that liberal democracy is democratic (the other problem being the prevailing ‘Whig’ interpretation of history, which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy.)

China, by contrast, has no such illusions to overcome. Contrary to our prejudices, China has a surprisingly decentralised political system and in some localities there is a strong tradition of kentan (convening heart-to-heart discussion meetings). Chinese requirements are that decision-making should be ‘scientific, democratic and legal’.

Fishkin’s methodology passed the first two criteria (selection algorithms to provide a democratically representative sample) and the decision of the randomly-sampled group was legal because it was duly rubber-stamped by the local People’s Congress. And the key point is that even though the decisions arrived at were entirely different from those of the local party leaders, they were duly implemented. The local party chairman, Zhaohua Jiang, was attracted by the increase in legitimacy as a result of the deliberative poll (‘I gave up power and found that I got more’) and the fact that a nearby township to Zegou where there was no consultation underwent riots.

Given the recent outbreaks of labour unrest, the Chinese leadership are eager for any way of legitimising their decision-making process. Scholars such as Suzanne Ogden, Lin Shangli, Ethan Leib and Baogang He have suggested that deliberative polling might provide an important building block for democratization in China (although we will have to overcome our Schumpeterian prejudice that democracy requires a multi-party state).

The results of the Zegou experiment were presented to considerable interest at a Beijing conference (there have been three other experiments since). Although the attraction to the communist party leadership is that real democracy (sortition) doesn’t undermine the one-party state it is hard to see how Schumpeterian competition is in any sense more ‘democratic’. It would be ironic if China were to be the first modern country to re-introduce real (Athenian) democracy, which never had anything to do with partisan battles between competing factions (abhorred by the Greeks).

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